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Professional Development on Demand

Say no to sleep-inducing all-day seminars! Give teachers the training they need, when they need it.

Balko Independent School District is a tiny, preK-12 system located in a rural area of Oklahoma. The district's 158 students and roughly 30 teachers and staff are all housed under one roof.

Like many small districts with even smaller budgets, Balko can't afford to bring in speakers or send teachers out of state to national conferences. So in 2009, it found an alternate way to expose its teaching staff to the latest educational strategies and research: online professional development programs.

Many school districts—large and small—are taking advantage of the digital environment for the same reasons online classes are growing rapidly: Sessions are customizable, up to date, and can be offered exactly when needed. Since working, socializing, and learning online has become second nature for most educators, schools are experimenting with these programs in hopes of producing more effective teachers and, ultimately, better-educated students.

In August 2009, teachers at Balko began watching videos that were part of an online professional development program called PD 360, developed by the School Improvement Network.

"We encouraged teachers to watch the differentiated instruction episodes," says Larry Mills, the district's superintendent. "We've been trying to tie differentiated instruction with response to intervention, to give teachers more and different strategies to use when students aren't getting the material."

By the end of that year, teachers were required to watch seven videos, answer questions posed at the end of each video, then write a reflection paper on what they had learned, which was read by their school principal. The program also reported the amount of time teachers spent watching each video. While some cringed at this big brother approach, Mills says this information was needed for professional development reports required by the state department of education.

Back in the classroom, the videos have helped teachers improve student reading skills. Before, Mills says, younger students were paired with older ones, who did most of the reading. Now, based on what teachers learned, students take turns, making it more interactive.

The training has worked so well the district will increase the availability of different videos, allowing teachers to watch up to 10 tutorials.

"You can actually set up folders for individual teachers," Mills says, explaining that each folder will contain a list of required videos to view. "Our appeal to veteran teachers is, ‘You're a great teacher, your methods are already tried and proven. Here's some information that may or may not help.' By and large, they all find something they can use."

Still, professional development is an ongoing process. Mills says it will take time for teachers to grow accustomed to logging in online for learning and to transfer their knowledge from the computer to the classroom.

Customizing Your Own Content
The 144 teachers at River Trails School District 26 in Mount Prospect, Illinois, are also at the beginning of this process. Their online training is delivered by CA101, Curriculum Associates' online professional development program. So far, only a handful have logged time online, says Susan Brown, a district interventionist for two K-5 elementary schools and one middle school.

While the programs reinforce her existing knowledge about effective teaching and reading strategies, she says one in particular-Comprehensive Assessment of Reading Strategies-helps her pinpoint problem areas experienced by children, such as their inability to understand a story's main idea or recall key facts.

"I actually did use it with children and saw where they were having their main issues," Brown says, adding that students may now perform better on the state's Standards Achievement Test. "It was a very nice tool. It did help me see where I needed to focus my teaching."

Despite the abundance of online professional development courses, some school districts have begun building their own on-demand libraries.

Of the 3,500 teachers at Alief Independent School District in Houston, roughly one dozen are certified online instructors who recently developed a handful of online classes for the district's website, which is hosted by eChalk.

One course, for example, helps teachers and students develop educational games for the classroom, says Sarah Trigg, the district's instructional technology program manager. Others focus on technology, such as how to create and use blogs, and on teacher tools like lesson planners. More than 500 teachers have completed these voluntary courses.

Likewise, Richland County School District One in Columbia, South Carolina also uses eChalk for a variety of activities, explains Elizabeth Kohut, Richland's technology education coordinator.

The K-12 district offers teacher webinars, posts lesson plans developed by its certified consulting staff, and offers a graduate-level course that enables teachers to view their assignments, access resources, and post their work on a discussion board, all within eChalk's online environment. As a smart technology district, she says the instructional technology services department is also developing a teacher portal for that company's notebooks, response units, and table files. There are plans to form a user's group forum, encouraging members to post notebook lessons that engage students.

"This is the first year we're working on creating our own professional development content and posting technology-integrated formal lessons," says Kohut. "The material must be customized to the needs of the district, strategies of the district, and needs of teachers and must make its way down to students so we can see student achievement, in the end."

What's the Next Trend?
Preliminary findings from a six-year-long research study show there's no difference in outcomes between online or face-to-face training, says Barry J. Fishman, associate professor of educational services and learning technologies at the University of Michigan. Fifty teachers nationwide participated in his study, The Impact of Online Professional Development. It focuses on changes in teacher attitudes, knowledge, classroom practices, and student learning.

Fishman predicts the number of online programs will increase because of their flexibility but will never replace face-to-face programs. There will always be a need for educators to get together in person, especially since teaching is a high-touch profession, he says.

Right now, online professional development programs encourage K-12 teachers to interact more with outside experts than their own peers, adds Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University. But powerful Web 2.0 tools will reverse that trend by enabling teachers to form communities of practice.

Dede shares his vision of training's online future. Teachers will take turns role-playing, challenging students or other characters in virtual classrooms to test different strategies. New teachers will use handheld mobile devices that orient them to a school environment. When they walk by a classroom, the device will offer professional information about the teacher in that classroom. Teachers will also access social bookmarking systems to note interesting websites, then access them on any computer, or discover helpful sites their peers are using.

"If someone never bookmarks anything about curriculum or assessment and another teacher does just the opposite, well that tells me something about each of those two people," Dede says. "It also tells me that if I put them together I have a really powerful team."

Overall, training spaces will be broadened, and professional development programs will become more powerful because they will be a blend of online and face-to-face programs. "When we look 10 years from now at what the best is of what we're doing now, we're going to be amazed at how far we've come," says Dede.

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